Grain Elevators are ubiquitous buildings, yet there is little popular understanding of them and their origins.
The basic arrangement of a grain elevator fits into two different "Type Families" based on whether it is a discrete building ("Self-Contained"), or a semi-dispersed cluster of structures (Annex).
Within those classifications, there are several distinctive types based on grain bin design and arrangment. Construction material and assembly then determine different subtypes or material variants.
An index to this and related typologies spells out the interrelationships concisely (without the clutter of images and descriptive text). Related and similar building and structure types are in a sibling websection.
These are larger examples that are set apart by their dependance on conveyers in the headhouse (also refered to as the "chase system" - Banham 1986: 114t), indicated by their resulting linear expanse. Rather than classifying them with others of their Bin Type (always vertical, but both square- and round-bin) or Construction Type, they are distinctive enough to warrant a separate type family.
An excerpt from a National Register Nomination for a Buffalo elevator describes the evolutionary step that produced this type:
A significant development that made such speed possible and which actually changed the outward form that later elevators would take was the introduction of horizontal transfer systems to move grain to the internal storage bins. The horizontal conveyor system allowed grain to be distributed to bins some distance from a fixed elevator leg.
The heads of elevating legs and related weighing equipment were housed in a tall cupola or monitor (often containing windows to light the interior) that ran the length of the structure above the storage bins. And economy dictated that the bins now be lined up in straight rows so that "grain might be distributed to them from the least number of horizontal conveyers." Thus, the long, lateral form of the twentieth-century concrete elevator, with stacks of silos lined up beneath an upper "headhouse" began to replace the tall, vertical shed form of the earliest elevators.
Conveyor belts also were added to the basement level of elevators, which eliminated the need for elevating legs down the length of the structure. By means of this innovation, grain being removed from a bin "could be spouted onto the basement conveying system and taken to some convenient point in the house where elevator legs were located. Fewer legs were required per unit of storage as outgoing grain from any bin could be directed to a single elevator leg."
Now elevating legs could be grouped at one end of the elevator only, in a "workhouse." From the workhouse, a "headhouse" or low gallery extended across the top of the elevator and housed the bin floor conveyor system. This headhouse replaced the tall cupola of older elevators. The now demolished Lake Shore Elevator, erected in 1886, was regarded as the first fully evolved example of this forward-looking system...
By the early 1890s, Buffalo's wooden elevators had evolved away from Dart's barn-like structure to a form that, internally, anticipated the classic concrete elevators that would soon replace them. The elongated arrangement of rows of bins, the vertical workhouse at one end, the low headhouse extending across the top of the row of bins, and the moveable marine leg tower already were characteristics of Buffalo grain elevators erected by the early 1890s.
The horizontal conveyor, or "chase system," had bins ranked in straight rows to optimize the conveyor system, resulting in a long, high, narrow elevator form. Previously, the gain was moved by an Archimedian screw system (Banham 1986: 114t).
These are vastly overgrown examples of the simpler Wooden Square-Bin Grain Elevator. Right around 1900 they were superceded by fireproof and vermin-proof concrete and other non-wooden construction methods.
The first image is of the Eastern Elevator in Buffalo, built in 1895 of eight million board feet of timber. All burned up in 1899 (as reported in A History of Buffalo's Grain Elevators - Excerpt from the 2002 Buffalo Grain Elevator Multiple Property Submission to the National Register of Historic Places). It evidently had three elevator towers on the doockside, the headhouse behind those, and then its bins on the other side of that - all creating a asymmetrical building, at least from the typical end perspective.
The second example illustrates one loosing battle, where one of the first and strongest proofs of the use of concrete for grain elevators was built beside a wooden elevator - which disappeared within eight years of the test. On the left edge of the image, the Peavey-Haglin Experimental Concrete Grain Elevator (or rather, Grain Bin) in Minnesota was built 1899-1900, and is mentioned in the Concrete Round-Bin Grain Elevator and Concrete Bin component of the Annex Type. This huge wooden elevator appears to eschew the typical clerestroy-like headhouse for a single uninterrupted gabled roofline, with dormers to light the headhouse rather than side walls with windows. More observations on both elevator and bin are in the Example Wooden Square-Bin Grain Elevators.
Factory-cast curved panels or rings of cast iron sheeting are riveted together to create bins. A headhouse, usually rectangular, sits atop. The same cast-iron pieces may be the same as used to build boilers (for steam locomotives and steam engines).
These appear to usually be encased in a masonry shell for insulation, and so often look like a Masonry Square-Bin Grain Elevator, such as the "Great Northern" in Buffalo ilustrated above.
The most famous example is probably Buffalo's famous 1897 Great Northern Elevator. The smaller drawing illustrates the bins being assembled before the outer walls were built.
The Great Northern Elevator would have looked less radical in its outward appearance to its contemporaries... In its shed-like form, it resembles the shape of primitive wooden elevators. Its 99-foot-tall steel bins are sheltered inside a vast, 300'-long structure of brick curtain walls equivalent in height to a ten-story building. Information from "Great Northern Grain Elevator Reprint of 1989 Landmark application. Includes 28 illustrations".
Factory-cast curved panels or rings of steel sheeting are riveted together to create bins. A headhouse, usually rectangular, sits atop. The same steel pieces may be the same as used to build boilers (for steam locomotives and steam engines).
The first image is an aerial view of the Electric Elevator. The Electric Elevator...consisted of steel bins resting on concrete foundations with a tall, corrugated iron workhouse at the wharf end and a steel-frame horizontal transfer system for the distribution of grain above the bins. The bins, which had hemispherical bottoms to facilitate the flow of grain, rested above basement conveyor belts that carried grain to and from below grade. The most striking feature of the Electric Elevator's appearance to the eyes of people familiar with its wooden ancestors would have been its cylindrical bins standing completely exposed to view. For unlike earlier timber grain elevators, the Electric had no structure sheltering its bins from the elements. Info from "Great Northern Grain Elevator Reprint of 1989 Landmark application. Includes 28 illustrations".
The Second is the Pioneer Steel Elevator in Minneapolis. The center headhouse is 70x84x145 feet, and the bins are each 50 feet in diameter and 80 feet tall. Info from 24 August 1901 Scientific American.
This is the master of the Great Plains railtowns and Great Lakes ports - the concrete "Terminal Elevator." (The term is more descriptive of size and location, and not design, which is why I do not use it in my heirarchy...)
The first image is of a generic example in Colorado, the aerial perspective showing the great length (as well as height) this type attains.
The second is of an elevator in Buffalo with especially tall front and rear Headhouses, probably to house more hoisting mechanisms and equipment that fed downwards.
The third image is an aerial view of the Electric Elevator Annex, a broad elevator in Buffalo, showing the spineal headhouse. Imagine the masses of ducts that feed off it to all the side bins! (The bins may be steel instead of concrete...)
These types are semi-dispersed structure complexes. They are composed of individual bins (usually round) interconnected with a spider-leg-like array of trussed-up tubes, all usually feeding into and out of a central "Elevator Leg" that rises above all. The naked elevator leg (formerly enclosed within the headhouse cupola/clerestory of Self-Contained Grain Elevators) with separate bins (formerly integrated within a building) are diagnostic features.
They developed probably shortly before or during World War II, and rapidly overtook the Self-Enclosed design in popularity. They probably evolved from the additive nature of prospering grain elevators, encouraged by the 20th century's insistence on minimal material and labor, and the easy method of simply adding another unit instead of an entire self-enclosed large building.
They tend to be a mix of different construction materials and different-sized bins, resulting from their usual additive nature, and so often defy pigeonholing. The different bin types will be discussed within the "Structures: Bins" subsite.
The last image is of a huge complex, more than what can be called a single grain elevator - but it shows the ultimate dispersal / accretion of structures resulting from the Annex mindset.
The two before it are milder versions. The left could be considered a skeletonized Self-Contained Concrete Round-Bin Grain Elevator. The right is an annex facility resulting from addition to a Wooden Square-Bin Grain Elevator
This is a far-from-complete list of the ingredients for an Annex-type elevator. A website that identifies the major components (albeit in a self-contained elevator, not exploded outward in an annex elevator) is the "Agricore United Brochure - The Operation Of A Grain Elevator."
This is the major component of all elevators, the large containers/structures that hold the grain...
Bins are built up from curved wall of cast concrete, usually using the "slip-form" technique. These tend to be almost frighteningly tall.
Some more information on these are in the Concrete Round-Bin Grain Elevator section of Typology Part 2.
The first image is the Peavey-Haglin Experimental Concrete Grain Elevator (or rather, Grain Bin) in Minnesota. Built 1899-1900, it was the first circular concrete elevator in the nation and possibly the world, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It has its own web page and an NRHP entry at the Minnesota Historical Society web site.
Large, circular concrete wall with flexible, waterproof tarp-like covering that covers the grain and can rise and lower with levels of material...
The above is not the best example, since it lacks a covering...